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What is a Camel?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 21, 2024
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The camel is a large mammal noted for the characteristic humps on its back. True camels come in two varieties, dromedary, or one-humped, and Bactrian camels which have two distinct humps. Though native to Asia, there are now about 700,000 wild camels in Australia, from specimens released into the wild after being used to build railroads.

The camel is prized for meat, leather, milk and working abilities. Known for their hardiness, camels make excellent pack animals for long trips through rough terrain. Though capable of surviving many days without water, the popular concept that they store water in their humps is a myth. Instead, the hump provides a reserve of fat cells that can provide additional energy on long or tiring journeys. Their water-conserving abilities are facilitated by several physical adaptations, including the shape of their red blood cells and the ability to reabsorb perspiration and retain the fluid.

Bactrian and dromedary camels are similar in size, both reaching heights of approximately seven feet (2.1 m) at the top of their humps, and weighing between 900-1400 lbs (408-635 kg.) Depending on the season in which they become pregnant, the female camel gestates for between 12-14 months, usually resulting in the birth of one calf. At birth, a camel weighs approximately 66 lbs (30 kg) and will double its weight in less than a year. The average lifespan of a camel is between 50-60 years, though cows typically stop producing calves around age 20.

Camels and humans have a long history together; they are believed to have been domesticated by 2000 BC. Although also prized for their meat and milk products, camels are often used as beasts of burden or work animals, and have even been used in military action for cavalry. They have often been used for railroad building or construction projects in desolate locations, where horses or oxen would be overstressed by the environment.

The practice of using camels in work projects has lead to some interesting results. In the Southwestern United States, camels were used to help with mining, and later released into the wild deserts. Sightings of their descendants are common, though not always credible. Camels have clearly made a new home for themselves in the Australian outback, where an enormous population of wild dromedaries subsists and grows in the absence of large predators.

Although camels survive well in domesticated situations, the wild populations of some groups are dwindling due to loss of habitat and other environmental concerns. Despite a thriving population of over a million Bactrian camels in the world, only 1000 are believed to remain in the wild. While the domestication of camels is an important human resource, it would indeed be a shame to let the feral populations of these remarkably adaptive creatures die out.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main types of camels and how do they differ?

There are three main types of camels: the Dromedary, which has one hump and is native to the Middle East and Africa; the Bactrian, with two humps, found in Central Asia; and the critically endangered Wild Bactrian camel. Dromedaries are well-adapted to hot deserts, while Bactrian camels can withstand the harsh conditions of cold deserts.

How do camels adapt to their desert environment?

Camels are the epitome of desert adaptation. They have thick eyelashes and narrow nostrils to keep out sand, wide feet to prevent sinking into the sand, and humps that store fat, which can be converted to water and energy when food is scarce. Their body temperature can fluctuate to minimize sweating, conserving water.

What do camels typically eat and how do they manage food scarcity?

Camels are herbivores that graze on grasses, grains, and even thorny plants that other animals avoid. They have tough lips to handle prickly food. During times of scarcity, camels can survive by using the fat stored in their humps as both food and water, allowing them to go weeks without eating.

How much water can a camel drink at once and how does this benefit them?

A camel can drink up to 40 gallons of water in one go, according to National Geographic. This incredible capacity allows them to rehydrate quickly after long periods without water. Their red blood cells are oval, enabling smooth flow in a dehydrated state and preventing rupturing when water intake is high.

What is the average lifespan of a camel and how do they fare in the wild versus captivity?

Camels typically live for 40 to 50 years. In the wild, their lifespan can be shorter due to predation and harsh environmental conditions. However, in captivity, with proper care and absence of natural predators, camels can reach the upper end of their lifespan, benefiting from regular food supply and veterinary care.

How are camels used by humans, and what is their economic importance?

Camels have been used by humans for thousands of years for transportation, carrying goods across vast deserts due to their endurance and ability to carry heavy loads. They also provide milk, meat, and wool. In some cultures, camels are a source of wealth and status. Their economic importance remains significant in arid regions.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for AllThingsNature. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By BoatHugger — On Nov 08, 2010

@googie98: I thought I would add a couple of more facts about camels.

Camels have padded hoofs with two toes. That protects them from sinking in the sand. Camels have three chambers in their stomachs. They can drink about 200 liters of water in a day. Their body temperature rises during the day and cools off at night.

Camels also have the remarkable ability of closing their nostrils or even just leave a small opening to prevent sand from entering. Their ears are very small but their hearing is incredible.

By PurpleSpark — On Nov 08, 2010

@googie98: Camels are fascinating animals. There are many interesting facts about camels that you can include in your project.

The female camel is called a call, the male is called a bull, and the baby is called a calf. Camels do not chew their food and swallow. They actually regurgitate and chew the cud later. Camels shed their coat every year. They also have two layers of thick eyelashes to protect them from the dust and sand in the desert.

By googie98 — On Nov 08, 2010

Can anyone provide me with a little more information about camels. I am doing a report on desert animals and I need a few more facts. Thanks.

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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